If you’re the sort of person who has struggled to remain friends with an ex, you might worry that you’re doing something wrong.
Our culture suggests that ending a relationship on good terms ought to be the goal. Consider Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin's 'conscious uncoupling' or Selling Sunset’s Chrishell and Jason’s incredibly loving Instagram breakup announcement post, in which Jason said: "We remain best friends and we will always love and support one another." Celebrities and public figures often share thoughtful joint statements about their separation, showing what appears to be an admirable level of maturity.
But most of us are not celebrities. We don’t have PR teams and expensive therapists to make it sound like a relationship breakdown is mutual even when there is conflict going on behind closed doors. We are also not rich. It’s easy to be magnanimous when you aren’t worried about how you’re going to pay for a new TV after your ex moves out and takes the one you bought together.
Twenty-three-year-old Francesca knows all about difficult breakups. She has had two significant relationships, both of which ended badly.
The first was an on-again-off-again relationship that started when she was a teenager. A couple of years after it ended, she found herself in a rebound relationship that became problematic. She has dated other people since, though more briefly. Francesca reflects that the guys she dated were all very different from one another but that there was a common thread: the relationships did not end in what she felt was a "kind" way.
Whenever Francesca tried being friends with an ex, they ended up getting back together, which became a "toxic" cycle for her. During these reunions, her exes weren’t what she considered "loving"; they started to show a side of themselves that she hadn’t seen before: "nasty, insulting and hurting."
Let’s not be Pollyannaish. There is no such thing as the perfect breakup. That being said, Francesca wishes that she and her exes could have parted ways amicably. Instead, the build-up of hurt feelings was so intense that removing the exes from her life completely felt like the only viable option.
"All these breakups were so fraught with emotions and pain that it was better just to pretend the other person doesn't exist anymore," she explains. She blocked her exes on all social media and communication platforms and vowed never to look back.
Francesca is not alone. Despite what celebrity breakup statements might have you believe, a recent survey conducted by YouGov in the UK found that only 8% of Britons are friends with all of their exes and more than half are not friends with any of their exes.
There are instances when ending a relationship on good terms isn't possible and that's fine.
Dr Elena Touroni
Though they are 10 years apart in age, Jasmine, 33, has a lot in common with Francesca. She too has experienced painful heartbreaks since she was 15. "Many of my messy breakups added to my trauma and core belief systems that love was difficult," she explains. "That I was unlovable and that it's just the way things are."
Jasmine says she was usually the one broken up with, mostly because she wasn't able to handle the fear and anxiety that came with initiating the end of a relationship. She would be in denial about the breakup and act as if nothing had happened, even though "this kind of behaviour was only fuelling my pain".
"I would do anything to show my ex that I couldn't live without them in the hope that they would miss me or take me back. This often meant that I made myself available for sex after the relationship was finished," she explains. "Then I would find out my ex had started dating someone else and we would have a huge fight and never speak to each other again."
No one should be defined by their relationship history – including how their breakups play out – but a series of bad breakups could be indicative that a person is playing into deeper relational patterns, says Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and cofounder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic.
"We have a tendency to re-enact the dynamics of our earliest attachments. If someone grew up in an unsafe, chaotic environment, they are more likely to subconsciously choose relationships that echo this," says Dr Touroni. "Ending these kinds of relationships can be extremely difficult so if there is a pattern of very distressing, 'bad' breakups, that might be something worth exploring in therapy."
Looking back on her past relationships, Jasmine recognises that she could have handled her breakups in a better way. She realises that her first relationship and breakup set the tone for her other relationships, which all stemmed from childhood traumas outside of her control.
"As a child I developed fear of abandonment, low self-esteem and codependency," she explains. "This began to show in my interactions with men once I began dating. I thought relationships were meant to be intense – arguing, fighting every day, full of jealousy and passionate make-up sex. I thought that this was what love looked like."
Understanding why your breakups are explosive or even harmful is vital. It might be the case that a negative pattern is being repeated and perhaps you can part on good terms and even be friends in the future. However it’s equally important not to be too idealistic and, more importantly, acknowledge that not all relationships need to or can end well.
Dr Laura Vowels is the principal researcher and sex therapist at therapy app Blueheart. She explains: "As long as both partners are able to get the closure that they need, the nature of their breakup doesn’t need to play an important part in helping them move on."
Ultimately, whether the breakup is "good" or "bad" might not actually matter that much in the long run.
"Whether that includes reflecting on your own part and then shutting the door, or resolving to move on without acknowledging their own reasoning," Dr Vowels continues, "closure can mean different things to different people."
Dr Vowels points out that even the best intentions can fall short in a breakup. "Since a 'good breakup' requires both partners to end the relationship on good terms, 'bad breakups' can still happen, even if one partner sets out with the intention of keeping things amicable," she says.
So even though there is pressure for all breakups to be "adult", "evolved" and "mature", it’s important to remember that the ending of your relationship isn’t always in your control and it’s not a testament to who you are. We all say and do things we regret when we are in pain – that’s part of being human.
"There are instances when ending a relationship on good terms isn’t possible and that’s fine," adds Dr Touroni. "Instead of focusing on what went wrong, try turning your focus to what you’ve learned from the relationship. There’s always something to learn from every relationship we enter. What will you do differently next time?"
'Bad breakups' can still happen, even if one partner sets out with the intention of keeping things amicable.
Dr Laura Vowels
For Francesca and Jasmine, it was learning to love themselves and prioritise their happiness. Jasmine says: "I gained more compassion for myself as I went through the breakup, knowing that we are all deserving of love and it's natural to want to be loved and to want to experience it."
Dr Vowels says that there is one failsafe way to handle any breakup: clear and respectful communication and setting healthy boundaries with your former partner.
"Agree on whether it’d be acceptable to reach out to each other in the future, and how often," she explains. "Be clear as to whether this is a breakup with no option of going back together or more of a break and 'we’ll see'. Though if the door is left open, it is very difficult to heal and move on."
Indeed, a 2020 study found that breakup sex is likely driven by selfish needs and makes women feel negative about themselves afterwards.
"While it can be valid to stay in touch and support each other through a breakup, making yourself available to an ex-partner too quickly after a breakup can blur the lines between what is and isn’t acceptable," Dr Vowels warns.
At the very least, when dealing with a breakup you should feel free to create distance between you and your ex, especially right after the relationship ends, so that you can focus on your own healing.
Once you have made space for yourself, it’s time to tend to your feelings. Dr Vowels says: "You could use this time to turn to other loved ones for comfort and support and remind yourself that unconditional love from your friends and family can be just as important as romantic attachments."
Dr Vowels also recommends channelling your heartbreak into activities that are good for your mind and body, such as exercising, resting and meditating. It can be useful, she concludes, to rediscover what brings you happiness outside of your social connections, whether that's cooking, painting or writing, in order to prioritise self-love and acceptance.
Culturally, we might shy away from messy or imperfect breakups but they’re a fact of life. If you’re unhappy with the way your relationships have ended, it’s never too late to start looking into yourself to break patterns and make changes.